Virginia Tech at Florida State
September 2, 2018
By Brian Edwards
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Matchup: (20) Virginia Tech at (19) Florida State
Venue: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, FL
Time/TV: Monday, Sept. 3, ESPN, 8:00 p.m. ET
Virginia Tech will be looking for its first win in Tallahassee when it faces Florida State for the first time since 2012 on Monday night at Doak Campbell Stadium. As of late Sunday afternoon, most books had FSU installed as a seven-point favorite with the total in the 55-56 range. The Hokies were +250 on the money line (risk $100 to win $250).
Willie Taggart will be making his debut at FSU after replacing Jimbo Fisher, who bolted on the Seminoles to take the Texas A&M job. Taggart was hired away from Oregon one year after he was hired from South Florida. He successfully ran rebuilding projects at both Western Kentucky and USF, but there are no four-to-five-year plans at FSU.
Taggart inherits a team that limped to a 7-6 straight-up record and 4-7-2 against-the-spread ledger in 2017. FSU started the season 3-6, only to win four in a row against soft competition to close the campaign. With long-time assistant and former player Odell Haggins serving as interim head coach, the ‘Noles beat up on ULM by a 42-10 score in a re-scheduled game before blasting So. Miss 45-13 at the Independence Bowl.
FSU brings back eight starters on offense and four on defense. The ‘Noles lost 35 lettermen. The offense lost returning starting QB Deondre Francois to a torn ACL in the season-opening loss to Alabama last season. Therefore, true freshman James Blackman started the next 12 games.
Blackman completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 2,230 yards with a 19/11 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He acquitted himself well, but Francois won the battle for the starting job going into the Virginia Tech game. In 2016, Francois threw for 3,350 yards with a 20/7 TD-INT ratio.
RB Cam Akers garnered second-team All-ACC honors as true freshman in ’17. He produced 1,024 rushing yards and seven TDs with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average. Jacques Patrick will get plenty of carries, too. Patrick ran for 748 yards and seven TDs with a 5.6 YPC average as a junior last year.
FSU senior WR Nyqwan Murray had a team-best 40 receptions for 604 yards and four TDs in ’17. Junior Keith Gavin contributed 27 catches for 278 yards, while Patrick had 21 grabs for 171 yards. Akers caught 16 balls for 116 yards and one TD. The offense averaged only 27.8 points per game, but the ’16 unit scored at a 35.1 PPG clip when Francois was healthy.
In his preseason magazine, Phil Steele’s Unit Rankings have FSU with the best QB and RB situations in the ACC. The offensive line is ranked second in the conference and the wide receivers are fourth in the league. From a national perspective, the ‘Noles are eighth at QB, sixth at RB and 14th on the o-line.
FSU lost its top-four tacklers and six of its top seven from last season. This unit allowed 21.2 PPG in ’17. Junior DE Brian Burns had the best ’17 numbers of the returnees, recording 48 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five QB hurries and four passes broken up.
Senior DT Demarcus Christmas is a preseason second-team All-ACC selection in Steele’s mag, as is sophomore safety Hamsah Nasirildeen. Christmas had 36 tackles, 3.5 TFL’s, four PBU, two QB hurries and one sack last season.
Virginia Tech 19-8 SU and 14-13 ATS in Justin Fuente’s first two years on the job. This is only the Hokies’ second game as road underdogs since Fuente replaced the legendary Frank Beamer. They won outright by a 34-31 score at Notre Dame as two-point ‘dogs in 2016.
Va. Tech finished last season with 9-4 SU record and a 6-7 ATS mark, losing a 30-21 decision to Oklahoma State at the Camping World Bowl. The other defeats came at home vs. Clemson (31-17), at Miami (28-10) and at Ga. Tech (28-22). The Hokies’ only win over a ranked foe came against 22nd-ranked West Virginia in the opener.
V-Tech brings back seven starters on offense and four on defense. There were supposed to be five returning starters on ‘D,’ but senior LB Mook Reynolds was dismissed from the program over the summer. Reynolds had 70 tackles, 7.5 TFL’s, four QB hurries, 1.5 sacks and one PBU last season.
Bud Foster has been the defensive coordinator at VT since 1995 and he remains one of the best in the business. His unit was terrific in ’17, giving up merely 14.8 PPG, and there’s still plenty of that talent around.
Senior DT Ricky Walker is a preseason second-team All-ACC selection, while junior DE Trevon Hill and junior safety Reggie Floyd are both third-team picks. Walker had 41 tackles, eight TFL’s, six QB hurries, 4.5 sacks and one PBU, while Hill produced 46 tackles, seven QB hurries, 5.5 sacks, four TFL’s, one interception and one forced fumble. Floyd started 12 of 13 games and tallied 72 tackles, three TFL’s, three interceptions for 106 return yards and one TD, two QB hurries, two forced fumbles and one PBU.
The prize of VT’s recruiting class was juco transfer CB Jeremy Webb, but he sustained a season-ending Achilles injury in June. Another top recruit, LB Alan Tisdale who enrolled early to participate in spring practice, also went down with a season-ending Achilles injury during camp in August.
Sophomore QB Josh Jackson gave Hokie fans a bit of a scare over the summer when reports circulated that he could be looking at an academic suspension. As it turned out, he’s good to go and will start Monday at FSU. As a redshirt freshman in ’17, Jackson completed 59.6 percent of his throws for 2,991 yards with a 20/9 TD-INT ratio. He also ran for 324 yards and six TDs.
Steele ranks VT’s QBs fifth-best in the ACC, while the RB are eighth. The WRs are 10th in the 14-team conference and the o-line is 11th. Those aren’t encouraging numbers, but elite QB play can help compensate for other weaknesses. And Jackson might be able to provide that.
Junior RB Deshawn McClease was part of a RB by committee approach in ’17, rushing for a team-high 530 yards and three TDs with a 4.9 YPC average. Travon McMillian transferred out, so sophomore Jalen Holston will get a lot more touches. As a freshman in ’17, Holston ran for 226 yards and three scores.
VT lost its best WR in Cam Phillips, who had 71 receptions for 964 yards and seven TDs last season. Sean Savoy started 11 games as a freshman in ’17, producing 39 catches for 454 yards and four TDs. Junior Eric Kumah had 28 grabs for 324 yards and two TDs as a sophomore. The Hokies are hoping for immediate production out of true freshman WR Tre Turner, who enrolled early for spring practice. They’ve also added Ball St transfer WR Damon Hazelton, who started nine games for the Cardinals as a true freshman in ’16 before sitting out last year.
VT is winless in six games at FSU, 1-2 in neutral-site openers and 1-7 in regular-season games at neutral venues. The ‘Noles have won seven straight home openers and 14-2 in 16 all-time meetings against the Hokies.
Kickoff is scheduled for Monday night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.
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